Encounters with portraits

Encounters with portraits

Since the opening of Toi Art, the stunning red wall in the Portrait room has captivated visitors to Nga tai whakarongoruaEncounters. Recently Rebecca Rice, Curator Historical New Zealand Art, and Matariki Williams, Curator Mātauranga Māori, shared with the Friends some of their research on the artists, the sitters and the historical context.

Encounters is not a direct translation as the Māori title carries meanings of multiple perspectives. Portraits inevitably involve an encounter; between the sitter, the artist and the viewer. The archived labels from previous exhibitions in Te Papa illustrate how our perceptions and understandings of these encounters have changed over time.

John Webber’s Poedua (Poetua) 1785, depicts a beautiful Tahitian princess, her fly whisk indicative of her high rank. Her serene gaze belies the troublesome encounters of Captain James Cook’s third visit to Tahiti. When two of his crew deserted, Cook took the pregnant Poedua and her family hostage to force the return of the men, a huge affront, as a chief’s body was tapu or sacred. The dark side of this encounter was reinforced when the returning deserters were brutally flogged.

Along the wall, we met two formidable looking European women, Mrs Humphrey Devereux (John S Copley, 1771) and Mrs W Collins (Margaret Carpenter, 1826), both simply identified by the name of their husbands. Margaret Carpenter, the only female professional artist on the wall, was a regular and well-respected exhibitor at the Royal Academy, but being a woman was never admitted as a member.

Museums generally focus on the artist, but for Matariki the focus in the Maori portraits is the sitter. Charles Goldie’s The Widow Horata Rewiri Tarapata 1903, has traditionally been seen as depicting a faded past, symbolic of the negative effects of European settlement. Matariki explained that she now sees Horata as holding on tightly to her taonga which remain important to her. Goldie was very interested in Maori life and culture and his works give a sense of him meeting and talking to his sitters about their experiences.

Gottfried Lindauer however usually painted his Maori subjects from photographs, often for patrons who wished to acquire their own collections. His 1890 portrait, Myra Lindauer Partridge, the four-year-old daughter of a wealthy patron, brings child visitors face to face with a precious little princess, dressed in high fashion and clutching an expensive doll.

William Allsworth’s The Emigrants 1844, led to an unexpected personal encounter, when we discovered that both a great granddaughter of the artist and a descendant of one of the sitters were in our group.

Bookending the exhibition, the gaze of Wilhelm Dittmer’s unnamed, Maori Girl, c 1904 looks away from us back to the red wall; encouraging us to look and look again, as things are not always what they seem.

Elizabeth Kay, President

Feature image (left to right): Te Aroha Waitai Henare, Matariki Williams, Rebecca Rice, Philippa Woodcock, Daniil Iushin, Robyn Henare